The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian
Laurel Estabrook is a young social worker in Vermont living under the weight of a horrific experience: she was viciously attacked one evening on a bike ride through a northern wood. With the emotional scars still suffocating her seven years later, Laurel immerses herself predominantly in her work securing safe and comfortable residencies for the homeless. But when her job brings her into contact with an elderly and schizophrenic homeless man named Bobbie Crocker, her life changes in ways she never would have expected. After Bobbie’s death she discovers he had possessed a remarkable collection of photography; negatives that he himself had taken throughout his career as a talented and notable photographer from the late ’50s into the ‘70s and beyond. The photos lead Laurel into the truth of Bobbie’s past, a truth that some people will go to great lengths to keep secret: namely Bobbie’s ties to the infamous history of two Jazz Age socialites from Laurel’s Long Island hometown. Thwarted by Bobbie’s last surviving relatives and questioned even by her closest friends, Laurel is on a race to prove the weight of Bobbie’s legacy once and for all. An astonishing literary thriller, The Double Bind leaves its reader with the sort of breathless reaction that exactly defines why reading can move us in remarkable ways. Among its surfeit of unique markings is the way in which Bohjalian approached the structure of the novel; his pacing manages to defy the typical strategies of the suspense genre, creating a book that’s distinctive and truly surprising. The novel’s first pages throw its reader headlong into the tense energy of Laurel’s tragic experience and the final chapters present a thrill ride one will never see coming, but it’s what happens on the pages in between that I found, on reflection, quite interesting. Bohjalian's eloquent prose and his focus on his protagonist, Laurel, created an unhurried tempo that had me feeling comfortable and at-ease with the reading experience; not what I had anticipated for a thriller. As I wondered why I was turning pages casually, and not with more rapidity, I started to see the finite ways in which Laurel's fixation on Bobbie's legacy gently began to erode her judgment. I understood that I was in the midst of a novel that had very finely crafted layers, but seeing through them was impossible. I was lulled into a false sense of security, perhaps even worried that the novel had failed because I had already easily imagined every way that the story could work itself out – and this is exactly what gives the shattering twist in the novel’s final act the astonishing velocity that it has.
While the structure and execution was fascinating enough on its own, Bohjalian’s use of The Great Gatsby as a device was extremely clever and handled with tremendous care, showing clearly the author’s great reverence for Fitzgerald’s classic novel. It makes the experience of reading The Double Bind a particularly cerebral one for readers familiar with Gatsby’s iconic story. The cast of characters were all engaging, but Laurel will stay with me for a long while most of all; her courage and determination brought her to life as an Amazon, empowering and emotional. I was also moved by the novel's nonfiction attributes: namely the real life Bob Campbell, a man whose life took him from photographing celebrities to seeking aid at a homeless shelter, and whose own photos appear printed throughout the novel’s pages, cast in the reader’s mind as the work of fictional Bobbie Crocker. The Double Bind manages to pay appropriate homage to a remarkable real-life man and an unforgettable classic novel, all the while taking readers on a journey that will have them questioning the very tangibility of reality; it struck me as smart and deeply intentional storytelling from top to bottom.
I won’t go into more details (much as I’d like to) for the sake of avoiding spoilers; but I do recommend this book very highly, and I recommend that readers see it through to the end, because you think you know exactly what will happen, but you have no idea – and it’s a pretty jarring, exhilarating experience.